A photo of a Family Mart convenience store in Japan.
Japan is a nation of ubiquitous convenience stores, and clerks are highly trained to address all customers the same way. Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

Throughout Japan, store clerks and other service industry workers are trained to use the elaborate honorific speech called “manual keigo.” But change is coming.

Enter any store or restaurant in Japan and you are almost certain to hear the same two words: “Irasshaimase konnichiwa!” (Literally, “Welcome hello!”)

These earnest multisyllabic greetings from clerks are inescapable in virtually every retailer, both in big cities and small towns across the length of the country. It’s part of an effusive pattern of patter known as “manual keigo”—Japanese honorific speech used by store clerks and applied uniformly regardless of a customer’s age or status. The rote repetition of certain terms and phrases forms a cornerstone of Japan’s solicitous culture of customer service.

Manual keigo swept Japan in the 1990s, a linguistic trend attributed to the rapid expansion of convenience stores across the country. But it’s a controversial, and evolving, practice. Critics take issue with the use of what they see as a mindless, one-size-fits-all application of honorific speech in the service industry—a mechanical approach at odds with the contextual nature of the Japanese language.

But the use of what was once an immutable aspect of Japanese customer service is now evolving to accommodate the country’s changing demographics—change that is only likely to pick up steam in the years ahead. In response to a labor crunch, more foreign-born, non-native speakers are working behind the cash registers of the now-ubiquitous convenience stores that dot the island nation. To accommodate these new workers, some companies are relaxing their once-rigorous speech standards. In a deeply traditional country that’s facing massive social changes in the coming years, the debate over the future of manual keigo reveals a complex intersection of language, culture, and identity.

Communication in Japan can be a complicated affair, particularly for non-native speakers. The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute classifies Japanese as one of only a few “super-hard” languages, requiring 88 weeks of intensive training to achieve General Professional Proficiency. One challenge of the language is its hierarchical nature, which requires speakers to adjust their speech to be appropriately polite, formal, and respectful with regard to the seniority or relative social status of those being addressed. To that end, a speaker must know when and how to use the plain, or casual, form of Japanese, or keigo (“respectful language”) in one of its three sub-categories: either the polite, humble, or extra-polite respectful form.

Difficulty commonly arises in the shift from casual to respectful. Speech progressively becomes more cumbersome as word length and sentence complexity increases. For instance, the plain form of the verb “to be”—iru—changes to the polite imasu, which in turn can become the humble orimasu (when refering to oneself), or ultimately the comparative mouthful irrashaimasu. Conversing in Japanese means mastering the nuances of upshifting degrees of politesse. Patricia Wetzel a professor of Japanese and leading keigo expert at Portland State University, says that “the nuanced ability to [employ keigo] is a form of social capital.” It reflects one’s educational background and relative social standing.

It is a system that has, historically, been brutally enforced. In highly ritualized feudal-era Japan, as the late author Boye Lafayette De Mente commented, insufficiently solicitous commoners could be fatally struck down under the samurai right of kirisute gomen. Even today, the social faux pas of yobisute—addressing another without appending an honorific to their name—is considered deeply insulting, and has been known to end relationships and spark violent responses.

It is easy for non-native speakers to get tripped up. When I first moved to Japan to work in a rural junior high school—and for an embarrassingly long time thereafter—I would tell people “Eigo no sensei” (teacher of English) when asked about my profession. As I eventually learned, however, sensei is an honorific reserved for addressing others, never oneself.

Within the framework of Japanese speech exists the somewhat controversial practice of employing formulaic honorific speech by those in the service industry. Manual keigo—so named for the training manuals of phrases that clerks and employees are expected to memorize and use in interactions with the public—creates artificial, repetitious, or otherwise grammatically questionable honorific expressions as companies strive to outdo themselves in terms of reverentially addressing their customers.

Customers can expect to hear generous use of the honorific prefixes “o-” and “go-”, which are appended to words as a sign of respect. “Tsugi no o-kyaku-sama,” or “the next honorable customer,” for instance, becomes “O-tsugi no o-kyaku-sama”—“the honorable next honorable customer.” Similarly redundant compound greetings—irasshaimase konnichiwa, or “Welcome hello”—are also common.

The reasoning behind its use is simple enough. Many service industry jobs in Japan are traditionally staffed by young employees or those with less formal education—people for whom using honorific speech is not a common endeavor. Companies, cognizant of Japan’s history of top-notch customer service and wary of inappropriately informal interactions between staff and patrons, accordingly provide exacting phrases, from greetings to the method by which a customer’s change is returned, to ensure a uniformly respectful experience. Manual keigo, as academic Tessa Carroll wrote in a 2005 journal article, is “a set script … used indiscriminately with no regard to the individual customer.”

It is that rote usage that rankles some purists. Japan’s National Language Council, an advisory body formerly comprised of experts in Japanese orthography, discouraged rote applications of speech “dependent upon fixed routines and formulaic utterances.” Instead, they, and their successor council within the Japanese government, encourage more adaptive use of Japanese that better reflects customers’ individual characteristics. That, they insist, is more in keeping with the original purpose of keigo.

Such a position is not unheard of in Japanese history. As noted by Wetzel, whose graduate work concerned historical linguistics, Japan’s elites in the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868 to 1926) had strong opinions on the correct use of Japanese by citizens, and took pains to address this via the country’s education system.

But she’s more circumspect on criticisms of manual keigo: Wetzel sees it as “a reflection of ideology [that] reinforces people’s already-held beliefs about how society should function.” This, she continues, “reflects an overriding concern in Japan for form.” In other words, presentation is often as important, if not more so, than content. The significance of manual keigo is not in the actual words used, but in what those words represent.

A Don Quixote discount store in Tokyo. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

While firmly rooted in Japanese consumer culture, change is nonetheless coming in regard to manual keigo—not due to highbrow academic debate, but as a result of shifting demographics in the service industry. Some 44,000 foreign workers—mainly Chinese, Nepalese, and Vietnamese—are now employed in Japan’s convenience stores. In March of this year, Family Mart, the country’s second-largest chain of convenience stores, announced that it would relax its policies surrounding manual keigo to accommodate the growing number of non-native Japanese speakers in its ranks. This will allow for the use of more natural and intuitive Japanese that eschew byzantine conjugations.

For Wetzel, the change perhaps “has more to do with people’s attitudes [in Japan] about foreigners than it does about keigo itself.” She points out that in the post-Taisho era (1912 to 1926) the Japanese have had comparatively limited exposure to immigrants working in service industry roles. To that end, while non-native speakers are generally accorded leeway when speaking the language, Wetzel suggests that in a customer service context, “if there’s anything worse than a Japanese [employee] using manual keigo badly, it would be a non-Japanese person using it badly”

This shift away from manual keigo is also emblematic of the changes necessitated by Japan’s demographic trajectory. Facing a severe labor crunch, the government recently passed contentious legislation to issue over a quarter million visas to low-skilled foreign workers beginning next year. In Izumo City, where town officials have pursued an aggressive policy of recruiting foreign-born residents, major corporations such as McDonalds have taken the uncommon step of posting job advertisements in Portuguese, in order to attract foreign workers from the city’s burgeoning Brazilian population. For convenience store shoppers, technology may soon supply other alternatives, such as automated cashier-free Amazon Go-style stores.  

As seen in North America, the potential for significant increases in temporary foreign workers in traditionally insular Japan raises familiar fears: those of depressed wages, difficulty integrating newcomers, and endangered cultural identity. Wetzel notes in particular the concerns of many Japanese elder-care facilities regarding the ability of foreign-born home-care workers, brought in to assist the country's aging population, to properly use keigo when caring for the elderly.

It remains to be seen to what degree Japan will adapt to a greater influx of foreign workers. Wetzel predicts one likely outcome is a change in public expectations regarding interactions with those in the service industry. For its part, Family Mart notes that it has not received complaints since loosening its manual keigo policy. With at least one major retailer willing to pare back its once immutable florid customer service scripts to accommodate its foreign workers, there is perhaps room to give.

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